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City weighs bridge options

Consultants recommend building a new span for the Treasure Island Causeway. But the city still is seeking historical status and repairs for the exisiting one.

By 2005, commuters passing between this city and St. Petersburg could be crossing a higher bridge that will cost the city between $33-million and $42-million. Or, the city could spend near the same amount to have the bridge declared a historic structure. In either case, bridge tolls will be going up.

Consultants on Tuesday recommended that the city build a 21-foot steel drawbridge that would limit openings to a fraction of what they are today. The new structure would be built about 70 feet south of the existing drawbridge, which would remain in use during two years of construction.

But after residents along the Treasure Island Causeway complained, city commissioners said they were not ready to rule out trying to have the existing bridge declared a national historic structure. In that case, the city could reinforce the structure but never tear it down.

About a dozen residents attended the workshop Tuesday to hear the first report from Miller Consulting Inc., hired by the city in May to consider the bridge options, ownership and costs.

The city heard from different consultants in 1997 that the deteriorating causeway bridge has to be replaced in the next five to 10 years.

"The rating is functionally obsolete," Craig Miller said Tuesday. The state rated the bridge an 18 out of 100.

Consultants reviewed a series of options, including the possibility of constructing a tunnel under the Intracoastal Waterway or building a four-leaf bridge similar to the John's Pass span.

If commissioners make any structural changes to the bridge, the U.S. Coast Guard will require a higher span. The Coast Guard has jurisdiction over navigable waterways.

The options ranged in price from $27-million to $33-million for a replacement similar to the existing structure to a high of $114-million for the tunnel.

If the bridge were declared a historic structure, the consultants said it would cost between $26.5-million and $33-million to repair it. The labor, they said, would drive up the cost.

The consultants said that they did not believe the 60-year-old bridge would meet the standards of the Bureau of Historic Preservation and the National Historic Register or that it would be possible to rehabilitate the structure.

"There's nothing that is very unique architecturally or engineeringly about the bridge," said consultant Chris Swenson. "We're not optimistic about that possibility."

Construction risks, disapproval from the Coast Guard and financing roadblocks further complicate the prospect, he said.

But the residents said they were concerned about the effect of a higher bridge on their neighborhood.

"All of us have gigantic investments in our properties," said attorney Allen Allweiss, who owns a home on Paradise Lane. "We ought to be fixing up the bridge we have."

He characterized the new, taller bridge as a monstrosity.

His brother-in-law, Dr. Peter Pardoll, owns the first home on Treasure Island, the green house on the northwest corner of the bridge. Dr. Pardoll said he was concerned that ramps would need to be constructed in front of his house if a new bridge is built.

Swenson said the bridge probably would be 5 to 12 feet above the road at the edge of the sea wall. But he did not anticipate building any large entrance ramps.

In response to the residents' concerns, commissioners asked the consultants to continue researching the historic preservation possibility.

"I think it's too early to eliminate that," said Commissioner Allan Sansotta. "The appetite is very strong in our community to replace (the bridge) with what we have."

City Manager Chuck Coward said the consultants from Cape Coral should be able to complete that study within the scope of their current $76,000 contract.

They also were directed to study their recommendation for a bridge that would curve slightly to the south of the existing structure. It would meet land on the Treasure Island side at almost the same point where the bridge ends today.

"You're not looking at anybody having to move or use a different route to get to or from the bridge," Swenson said.

By building a new bridge adjacent to the current one, "the bridge would never be completely shut down," he said.

If the city decided to demolish the current bridge and build one in the exact alignment, the bridge would be gone for at least 18 months, Swenson said.

A few parking spaces near the southwestern edge of the bridge may need to be relocated, Coward said, but no access roads would be required.

"We think we can come up with a concept that will minimize the impacts both physical and visually," Miller added.

The other two portions of the causeway bridge _ the approach bridge in St. Petersburg near Park Street and the western extension near the St. James Condominiums _ would not have to be raised and would not be significantly changed when they are replaced under the recommended plan.

The proposed new bridge would be similar in operation but would be constructed of a high-grade steel that would put the surface of the road about 26 feet off the water. The clearance from the water to the bridge would be 21 feet.

"The higher-grade steel allows you to have a thinner surface," Coward said. "That makes a difference in what the highest height is."

Another, slightly more expensive option is to put a concrete surface on the bridge to buffer some of the noise.

Commissioners on Tuesday eliminated the tunnel option because of the costs.

Ownership and financing

Consultants told commissioners that the city is doing a good job of operating the bridge and that the city should own the future bridge.

"I agree with that," Coward said. "I don't think there are any liabilities in that operation that we aren't already dealing with, and there are significant benefits to this community to having that bridge and its revenue source."

The consultants had been asked to consider whether Treasure Island should transfer the ownership of the bridge to another entity such as the county or state.

Miller said the state isn't interested in assuming ownership of new bridges, especially those that are not on state highways.

Coward said the city had not yet approached the county.

Treasure Island has been anticipating the need for a new bridge for the past several years. By the time new construction begins in 2002 or 2003, the city expects to have about $10-million in its bridge fund. Most of that money comes from tolls.

To finance a new bridge or rehabilitate the structure, the city probably would need to issue municipal bonds to raise the money.

"We would issue revenue bonds for the difference between our down payment and the cost of the bridge," Coward said. "They would probably be 30-year revenue bonds, and we would pay that out of the tolls."

Companies that issue bonds for bridges want to be sure that the bridge owners are willing to raise the money necessary to repay the loans, Miller said.

He suggested commissioners start raising the tolls next year.

The tolls were last raised in 1990 when the coin rate was changed from 35 cents to 50 cents, and the annual passes went from $15 to $20.

The city generates about $1.4-million a year from tolls. Most of the money _ about 77 percent _ comes from drivers who pay at the booths, rather than annual pass-holders.

To fund a new bridge, Miller recommended the city raise the toll rate next year from 50 to 75 cents and from $20 to $30 for annual passes. A gradual increase, he said, will be more palatable to residents.

By the time a new bridge opens in 2005, consultants said the tolls to cover the new structure probably would need to be $1 at the booth and $45 a year for annual passes.

"This makes the bond markets a lot more favorable," Miller said.

Commissioners on Tuesday made no decisions about the tolls.

"That will be a topic of future meetings," Coward said.

Height requirements

Miller said the Coast Guard ruled "unofficially" that a new bridge for Treasure Island would have to be at least 21 feet above the high-water line. He said he had expected the requirement to be at least 35 feet.

"We're delighted," Coward said. "I think the general fear factor of the community is that we would have been held to a 35-foot height. By coming down from 35 to 21 feet, we can essentially get up and down between the sea walls and not impact any adjacent properties."

Consultants reviewed two years of traffic patterns on the bridge as part of the study, taking into account the peak tourist seasons as well as the boat traffic.

The most recent survey was conducted for five days in July.

On Saturday, July 10, for example, the drawbridge opened for vessels 28 times. Under the current Coast Guard regulations, the bridge has to open every 15 minutes between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. if boats approach. From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., the bridge has to open on demand.

If the bridge were 21 feet above the water, like the span recommended by consultants, the bridge would have had to open only five times July 10, according to the survey.

City Commissioner Mary Maloof, who represents Paradise Island, first raised the questions about the effect of a new bridge on the neighborhood.

But she said many residents also have told her they want a new bridge that will allow them to cross as quickly as possible.

"There are a lot of people that feel that way," she said.

The historic designation "bothers me because of all the strings that are attached," she said.

Maloof said she does not believe the new bridge will negatively affect the residents along the Treasure Island Causeway. In fact, she and her husband, Edward, are in the process of buying a house along that street.

Nevertheless, Dr. Pardoll said he was encouraged by the commission's willingness to continue to investigate the historic designation.

"Nothing's ever impossible," he said.